Congress, NASA, and the International Space Station: A New Civility? Part 1

By Keith Cowing
April 5, 2001
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A summary of hearings before the House Science Committee on Space Station Cost Overruns, 4 April 2001


Spring has not been kind to the International Space Station over the past decade. With almost clockwork regularity, Spring has brought budget overruns, redesigns, Congressional attempts to kill the project, schedule delays – or some combination thereof. 2001 is no different.

In the past, the prospect of yet another space station problem would be expected to bring an instant hotseat situation for NASA before Congress- and no shortage of experts explaining how NASA had screwed up once again with Russia and/or Boeing and/or Bill Clinton to blame.

This week’s hearings before the House Science Committee had all the necessary ingredients for yet another ugly round of finger pointing. Curiously, it really didn’t happen.

A $4 billion cost overrun – one that seemed to appear out of nowhere? Expected result? – Instant indignation from Congress – complete with witnesses being sworn in and flaring tempers on display – from both sides. With the extra incendiary actor of an (apparently) lame duck NASA Administrator many would just love to blame for anything. Again, it didn’t happen.

Instead, a new Science committee chair, starting from a clean slate, skipped the prerequisite swearing in, and much of the baggage from the 106th, 105th, 104th, and 103rd Congresses, and laid out the law in simple no- nonsense terms. Partisan attacks, while present, were rather blatant in their geographic and/or political bias, and therefore missed the mark, passing out of short term memory shortly after being raised.

What are we left with? A functional space station in orbit, with its second crew onboard, ready for augmentation so as to begin the long-promised program of scientific research. With the demise of Mir, this vehicle now holds all of humanity’s near-term marbles vis-à-vis the human exploitation of near-Earth space. You don’t kill something like this. Instead, you bite the bullet, swallow some pride, put your agenda on hold, roll up your sleeves, and find out how to make the darn think work.

What has changed? Dan Goldin now works (once again) for a Republican President who is attempting to govern with some modicum of bipartisan consensus. The House Science Committee is led by a moderate environmentalist Republican. Meanwhile, NASA’s White House liaison is a consummate class act when it comes to consensus building. As such, the ability to allude – or overtly allege – that ISS problems have a Democratic component has more or less evaporated. Since blaming the last guy in charge works only for a short period, those seeking to blame someone for the current situation now need to default to a “no-one /everyone is to blame” approach.

Therein lies the departure point for resolving the current problems – and then assuring that future problems are more easily anticipated – and dealt with. Or so we can all hope. Given the past, often dysfunctional relationship NASA and Congress have developed over the years vis-a-vis the International Space Station, it will be interesting to see just how long civil behavior, such as was seen in this hearing, will last.

It is against this backdrop that NASA’s first space station hearings of 2001 were set.

Opening statements

Chairman Boehlert (R-NY) opened the hearings [prepared statement] by noting that these cost overruns are “the most pressing issue facing NASA today”. While Boehlert said that the Science Committee would continue to support the ISS that this support was “not a case of unconditional love. Inertia alone will not be enough to keep the space station in orbit.” In setting the tone for the hearings, Boehlert said that he did not want to focus on who is to blame but rather on what to do so as to prevent things like this from happening again. Despite these words of support, Boehlert did admit to a certain amount of skepticism regarding the seriousness with which NASA was addressing this latest in a series of cost overruns. He said that in fixing these problems he felt that n other NASA program should be “cannibalized” and that the money for any fixes must come from within the ISS budget.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) cited his previously stated concerns that the ISS had been burdened with unnecessary reliance upon Russia and that this approach was taken by NASA despite bipartisan advice to the contrary from Congress on multiple occasions. He lamented the fact that repeated cuts in research have been made to fix problems caused, in great part, by Russian shortfalls and chided NASA for its failure to meet self-imposed cost caps noting that the ISS was already $7 billion over budget and 4 years late and that now this number will grown by at least anther $4 billion. Rohrabacher praised the Bush Administration for its intent upon forcing NASA to live within its budget – and the caps imposed by Congress last year of $25 billion for all ISS development.

In looking for ways to get out of this situation, Rohrabacher urged that full consideration be given to bringing in new resources – from both the participating nations – and from the private sector. Rohrabacher said that he had been making his views known tot he Bush Administration and that he had met with the head of OMB recently. As a result of the meeting. Rohrabacher felt that NASA, as a priority, had moved up the list.

Rep. Baird (D-WA) spoke of his concern that safety no be compromised as the stations’ funding problems were addressed. He made two issues of top priority – that a “U.S. developed escape vehicle” be developed that would allow the full crew complement to be supported. He felt that the U.S. needed to have control over this – and not have this capability under “foreign” control. He also felt that a reboost capability – again one built and “controlled” by the U.S. be developed such that we would not have to depend upon “foreign” hardware.

Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) [prepared statement] spoke very briefly and said that he did not want to point fingers and echoed the concerns expressed by other members of the Committee.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Related Links

° Statement of Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator

° Oral Statement by Dan Goldin before the House Science Committee

° NASA’s Space Station Program: Evolution and Current Status: House Science Committee testimony by Marcia S. Smith Congressional Research Service

° Testimony of Russell A. Rau, NASA Assistant Inspector General for Auditing

° Statement of Robert J. Polutchko Member, Cost Assessment And Validation Task Force Advisory Committee on the International Space Station

° Opening Statement by Rep. Ralph Hall – Hearing on the Cost Overrun in NASA’s International Space Station Program

° Statement by Rep. Boehlert regarding Space Station Cost Overrun Hearing

Background Information

° Space Station User’s Guide, SpaceRef

° House Science Committee

° NASA Office of Congressional Affairs

°28 February 2001: Memo NASA Staff: FY 2002 Budget Blueprint Overview by NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Joe Rothenberg, NASA HQ

°27 February 2001: Letter from Reps Rohrabacher and Weldon to Dan Goldin Regarding JSC Center Director George Abbey’s Reassignment, House Science Committee

°23 February 2001: Letter from (former) JSC Center Director George Abbey to Senior Staff: Actions Required to Address ISS Budget Challenges

°23 February 2001: NASA Administrator Appoints Johnson Space Center Director to Senior Assistant Position, NASA PAO

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.